Pandemic Shines Light on Health Care Disparities

March 11, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the gap in health care outcomes and access to care faced by minorities. According to recent data gathered by the South Carolina Institute of Medicine and Public Health (IMPH), Black and Latino people have been disproportionally affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. 
Based on the report, the IMPH says that in communities of color, COVID-19 has been deadlier and spread more, resulting in higher case counts. The IMPH is a nonpartisan, non-profit organization that works to inform policy to improve health and health care in South Carolina.
BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina’s Dr. Shawn Stinson, senior vice president for Healthcare Innovation and Improvement, serves on the board of IMPH. He offers some insight into the issues and why it is important that the health care community address it.

What has the pandemic taught us about health disparities?

I think if it wasn’t top of mind for people before the pandemic, it has become so now. The numbers show that the coronavirus is 1.9 times deadlier for Blacks compared to whites nationally, and we may be even worse in South Carolina. It highlights the work we’ve got to do to level the playing field.

Are the health disparities more of an issue in rural or urban areas of the state? 

Nothing I’ve seen shows that there’s a big difference whether you live in a rural area or a suburban-urban area when it comes to overall health disparities. We have areas of high social vulnerability in both rural and urban communities.

Why is it important that we talk about health disparities?

The impact of health inequity is seen in many areas including the prevalence and severity of chronic diseases, vaccination rates, and death rates adjusted by age. These are longstanding problems that will take concerted broad-based efforts to overcome.  

One of the things that we've learned with the COVID-19 pandemic, which you and I have not experienced in our lifetime, is that the responses to mitigate the impact need to be targeted and culturally sensitive. We have a lot of history to overcome in many communities.

Why is it important that BlueCross have a representative on the IMPH board? 

In health care in our state, there is a lot that BlueCross can influence by virtue of our involvement or through the work of the BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Foundation, which focuses on access to health care. We are the primary funder, outside of the government, of health care in the state. Being part of the IMPH gives us yet another voice.

What has BlueCross done or is doing to address health disparities in South Carolina?

One important thing we did was that when everyone else dropped out of the Affordable Care Act Marketplace, we did not. For a couple of years, we were the only provider of exchange plans in South Carolina. That translates to roughly 200,000 South Carolinians who wouldn’t have had health care coverage if we had stepped out. 
We also make a big impact in our communities through efforts by our Community Relations team and the BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Foundation. For example, the long-term commitment we made to address diabetes in the state through Diabetes Free SC is important because there is a disproportionate impact on communities of color when it comes to diabetes. In this specific and meaningful way, we are trying to expand our understanding of the impact of social determinants of health. It is especially timely as we also know that people with diabetes are more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Is this something that only matters during the pandemic?

No, but the pandemic certainly shined a light on the issue because the numbers are so grave. Unfortunately, issues that preceded the pandemic will also outlive it. Hopefully the attention on the great needs won’t go away when the pandemic goes away. We have the opportunity to make meaningful changes. This is an important moment.

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